Another post based on an old YSDC post.
Although my examples are specifically about a school scenario, and based on Call of Cthulhu, I think they're generally applicable to any situation where the players are familiar with their surroundings and the NPCs. It might be a house, a small village, a ship or a military base. These situations seem to threaten a lot of problems for the GM in maintaining the mystery, in keeping investigative control with the players rather than doling out instructions a piece at a time, and in trying to maintain some realism.
At the time, I was working on a now-dormant Call of Cthulhu scenario set in a school. This quickly ran into the point that the characters are intimately familiar with the location and its inhabitants. Of course, there are some areas they don't visit, and any character can have secrets, but player characters and NPCs alike should realistically have a very good knowledge of things around them.
There must be existing scenarios where the action happens somewhere very familiar to the investigators, but I don't know them. Certainly most scenarios assume you aren't previously familiar with plot-relevant locations, but get called to visit them and discover their secrets. In many cases you move between several locations, so even if hooks appear somewhere you know, you'll be led elsewhere. Although investigators may know a certain city, or even a district, they don't tend to know the houses, graveyards, docks or occult bookshops where the plot unfolds. Information about these places is gradually discovered over the course of the scenario, almost always starting from zero.
There are three main consequences of a location being new to the PCs.
Firstly, once they find out it "exists" within the scenario, investigators are very likely to go there. There is a natural progression from total ignorance of the "geography" of the scenario, where the party find out about the places there are to visit and check them out. If you find a clue even hinting at a connection to another location that you've never heard of, you're very likely to go there. This is largely the tacit understanding that if information uncovered in a game (even an investigative game) isn't relevant, it wouldn't be there. It's not always true, or sometimes players and GMs ascribe different importance to a throwaway fact, but there's limited cost to going, so typically you might as well.
Secondly, information can be given out naturally without beating anyone with the Hint stick. Because the investigators are new to the place, they can be assumed to be paying some amount of attention. They don't know what a place is like, so everything they might see will get some attention even if they aren't actively looking for it. What kind of buildings are there? How many people? Is it in good repair? Details that you'd skim over in a familiar place need mentioning, and these may give clues or hint at dangers. You can also include things that seem strange or scary but habitual visitors would get used to, like odd architectural features, strange noises or unusual inhabitants.
Thirdly, characters will actively investigate it, either by research or in person. What's its history? Any new stories, rumours or legends? What does it look like? Who is there? Are there any interesting features? Any treasure? What kind of atmosphere does the place have? These questions are likely to come up naturally, and if the answers are interesting, it's reasonable that they go and investigate more closely.
I think that a scenario set somewhere the investigators are already intimately familiar with doesn't work quite the same.
For a start, they should already know all the major locations that exist, so it doesn't make sense for them to discover them sequentially during the plot. They start off with a map or something and some blurb. This also means there is no particular incentive for them to go somewhere just because it is mentioned; their characters already know what that place is like, so it makes no sense in character to go and explore it. Lacking that sense of novelty, there's also less out-of-character motivation to do so.
Secondly, giving out meaningful information in a useful way becomes more difficult. Because the investigators aren't exploring the area from scratch, they don't get a little bit of information at once; they basically have to start off with a big pile of information about the area, of which some is plot-relevant and some isn't. Unless you include a huge amount of unnecessary detail (which is hard work and may be annoying), it will be fairly obvious which information is relevant and which isn't, so they will be looking out for links right from the start. This isn't necessarily a problem, but it depends what sort of game you're playing and what the group's tastes are. Many players don't like wading through large amounts of information, even things like general setting and history, so asking them to read up on a scenario location isn't likely to go down well.
If you don't give out an initial infodump, you have a different problem. The investigators are effectively rendered amnesiac, with little idea of what the world around them is like. They may end up wasting a lot of player time traipsing round looking at everything, and finding out about the local culture, rules, residents and so on. They don't know, until they ask, that there was a fire in the chemistry lab last term, which is an important clue to the plot. They don't know of the local tensions between the Baron and the Guild of Miners, which might be behind the crime wave. They have no ambient knowledge of the NPCs, either in terms of their social roles (is there a blacksmith? a forensic accountant? a Martian?) or their personalities. This means that whenever they find any information, you have to basically tell them the clue-value of that information.
Basically, either option means it's quite difficult to do subtlety.
Thirdly, it's less natural to actively investigate things. Why would you go prying around the dormitory you sleep in every night, or exploring the chapel you've been visiting for years? Why would you wonder what the inscription is under the paintings when you pass them every day on the way to lessons? If the Headmaster mentions the name of an old boy in his morning assembly, you've probably heard it at least once a term (few schools have many significant old boys) so why would you be curious about him? Because things are not new, they aren't intriguing. This is a real-life issue: I very rarely go to any tourist attractions where I live: I can go there any time, so I don't go at all, not even once. Since the PC don't want to investigate, it's hard for the players to justify it plausibly, and hard for the GM to provide information in small doses.
Another difficulty with this fixed, known setting is that very little can be hidden, and especially people. In an ordinary scenario, once a suspicious name crops up, that's not enough: you need to track down the person too. They might be hard to find, they might use a pseudonym, or they might run away if they suspect you're coming. However, when you're talking about a fellow pupil at the school, things are a bit different. If your suspicion lights on someone, it's fairly easy to find them, at which point things typically come down to deception or fighting. They can't really disappear without becoming incredibly suspicious, nor can they assume a false identity. You can easily find out where they sleep (or where a teacher's office is) and track their movements. Finding and searching their possessions is relatively simple (though not necessarily easy). This limits the investigative aspects of the game.
Dissonance of Salience
I think these are symptoms of a more general problem I'm going to call Dissonance of Salience (cf. cognitive dissonance). Information that is very salient to the player is not salient in-character, and so it becomes difficult to convey it in a way that's natural and doesn't undermine the game. This problem is most prevalent in terms of investigation, but can also crop up in terms of cultural and behavioural norms: what is a normal interaction between a dwarven cleric and an elven wizard, and how should any discrepancies be interpreted? Baring your teeth is aggressive to Plutonian lizard-people, and the Space Corps know that, but do you best convey to the players that smiling is bad in a way that leads to a better game experience, rather than effectively rendering the point moot ("okay, we don't smile then")? You don't want to dictate to players how they play their characters, but having interesting and consistent patterns of interaction and social relationships help make a setting feel alive. If dwarves and orks are supposed to hate each other, or people treat robots like treasured servants rather than slaves, then you want players to be aware of that, so any departures on their part are intentional and meaningful.
Things like social mores and superstitions are another good example. Major departures by NPCs would obviously attract PC attention (running around naked during a funeral, say), but more subtle breaches that might hint at oddness are harder to convey without beating anyone over the head with the Clue Bat. Again, if you want to aim for verisimilitude, then these kinds of details are important - especially in things like historical settings where there's an objective reality to compare against. A vagrant and a common soldier are not getting a private meeting with the Duchess of Avon and no servants present; they won't even get to leave her a note.
So to stick with my school example: let's say there was a fire in the chemistry lab last term, something that would be known to the whole school.
If you mention this at the start, so that investigators have the appropriate background knowledge, it's obvious that this is linked to the scenario. If you don't mention it until players ask "was there a fire anywhere last term?", you're cheating them of information they would actually have, which makes it unlikely they'll deduce anything useful. If you give them this information when they find a clue, it's a massive nudge-wink; essentially you're handing out a chunk of plot, rather than a clue. This is a Sherlock Holmes technique, where there's no way for them to interpret any clues because you hold back crucial information until you want them to know the answer.
So let's say the investigators find a labcoat lying around, and examine it. "You find a box of matches." Two crucial bits of background knowledge apply: there was a fire in the chemistry lab last term, and pupils are not allowed matches. There isn't necessarily a connection between the two (maybe it's just an illicit smoker, a red herring) but it's a big clue. There are several ways to handle this:
- You don't mention this background information at all, unless someone asks you. Result: it's very unlikely anyone works this out. Matches are fairly normal items, not intrinsically suspicious, and there's no particular reason to assume they're banned. There's also no particular reason to imagine there's been an arson attack. Players can perfectly well assume that this means "you don't find anything important".
- You call for a roll. Result: this adds uncertainty in the wrong place, because the real question is whether they work out the connection. If they roll badly, they won't have the information needed to draw the conclusion, which they definitely ought to have. At the same time, you are flagging up that the matches are important clues.
- You mention at the start of the game that matches are not allowed in school and there was a fire in the chemistry lab last term. Result: players keep a sharp eye out for matches, and for anything at all relating to the chemistry lab. As soon as they find the labcoat, they will assume it is important and draw the obvious conclusion.
- When they find the matches, you also tell them: "Matches aren't allowed in school. You remember that there was a fire in the chemistry lab last term." Result: this is more than a clue, it's a chunk of plot that limits the players' involvement. If it's correct, they're basically not getting to do much investigating. If it's not, you're dropping massive red herrings.
If you give out only the relevant information at the start, you're highlighting the things they should look out for. If you give out a mixture of real info and red herrings, this might really annoy the players. If you give out a lot of general information and only a little is relevant, then for one thing it might be quite boring to wade through before the game starts, and for another, they might well ask at the end "wait, so after all that, the school pig was completely irrelevant?".
In a similar way, people become a problem. They will know most of the other people in the school, at least by sight. If twenty people pass you on the way to class, and the Keeper says "one of them is Jones", that's a fairly obvious hint that Jones is important. If the Keeper names all of them, that's boring. This makes it difficult to draw someone into the plot without making it obvious that they are a Named NPC.
I'm not really sure what's the best way to tackle these problems, at least in a concrete way. It will depend on the scenario, and I suspect the timeframe is important. If you have a slow-burning plot, investigators can be gently led around the area and naturally encounter many of the locations. If you start in media res, things will be far more difficult.
My idea was to do an initial briefing with maps available, just so everyone's available of what exists within the school at all, and then to give more description when they were visited. It's going to be fairly obvious which areas get singled out and which are lumped into one shared description, but that's how it goes. I'd also suggest encouraging them to ask questions about the school and its history before the game starts, just to help fix things in people's minds, as well as to visit them during the early stages of the game, so they have a good idea of what the school is like.
People are a lot harder, because you just can't give people a useful sense of multiple characters the way you have in real life, without any actual interaction. The same applies to recent events, which are mostly irrelevant but might contain significant plot points. I'd suggest a similar tack, with an initial overview, and some handouts to help ease the pain. For other information, I'd try to call for Know and Idea rolls whenever it seems there might be a relevant link, and be fairly generous with those.
I'm not really sure what can be done about everyone being trapped. Basically, once you're under suspicion, there's not much you can do about things. This seems to call for a design-level solution, so that simply guessing who might be involved in a situation isn't enough to solve it, and won't put too much of a dent in the NPCs' plans.